The other day, on the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Dave Lowry’s In The Dojo. It’s a pretty easy read, in which Lowry describes many of the reasons and history behind why things are done a certain way in the dojo. Why is a traditional dojo have the floorplan that it does? Why do we wear gis, anyway? What’s up with the hakama (for those of us who wear one)? These are the types of questions that Lowry attempts to answer. It’s an enjoyable read thus far, primarily because it’s interesting to see how, in the West, we can get caught up in the mythology of why something exists, as opposed to understanding the real (and, often, far more practical) reason.
It’s amazing how much mythology surround martial arts training, and how much of that mythology we, as “outsiders” studying the art in question, create ourselves. One instance that comes to mind is the notion of the belt. I remember hearing from someone, when I first started training, that you never wash your belt. Ever. “It represents your knowledge,” this person said. “And if you wash it, that knowledge goes away.” I accepted this, at first, without thinking. But then realized a couple of things:
- The belt system is a pretty new introduction to the world of martial arts training.
- Some people sweat. A lot. Washing a belt becomes quite important at that point.
So I started doing a little research. And, thus far, I haven’t been able to find a real reason for why you shouldn’t wash your belt. It seems to be a myth that, like many other myths like it, probably started innocently enough, and snowballed from there.
Another facet I find interesting is why we wear gis to begin with. I’ve lost count of the stories surrounding this. (One xample: They’re the clothes that you wear under your more formal attire. Does this mean that, in essence, you’re running around in underwear?) Lowry writes that the gis we use in Japanese martial arts really were designed for two reasons: (1) they were durable, and (2) they were cheap to make. Very simple, practical reasons; no hidden meaning needed or required.
I find the topics in this book also dovetail quite well with an essay written over at http://www.24fightingchickens.com called The Box. In that article, the author writes about how, in the West, we seem to get too caught up in the trappings that surround the martial art than in the martial art itself. The analogy used is that of a child who, opening a present, becomes fascinated with the box it came in as opposed to the gift itself. So, while In the Dojo can certainly provide insight into why things are done certain ways in traditional Japanese dojos, it is equally important to remember that most of us do not train in such environments. Therefore, while it’s excellent to know how things are done, it is vitally important to understand why things are done as well.